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STUDENTS' PROJECTS > THE STORY OF GANDHI > In South Africa
 

In South Africa

It was a long journey from India to South Africa. Gandhi reached the port of Natal towards the end of May, 1893. The first thing he noticed was that the Indians there were treated with little respect. Within a week of his arrival in Durban, he visited the court with Abdulla Seth of Dada, Abdulla &Co.

No sooner had sat down than the magistrate pointed his plump finger at him.

'You must remove your turban,' he said sternly.

Gandhi was surprised. He looked round and saw several Mohammedans and Parsees wearing turbans. He could not understand why he was singled out to be rebuked.

'Sir,' he replied, 'I see no reason why I should remove my turban. I refuse to do so.'

'You will please remove it,' the magistrate roared.

At this Gandhi left the court.

Abdulla ran after him into the corridor and caught his arm.

'You don't understand,' he said. 'I will explain why these white-skinned people behave like this.'

Abdulla continued: 'They consider Indians inferior and address them as 'coolie' or sami'. Parsees and Mohammedans are permitted to wear turbans as their dress is thought to be of religious significance.'

Gandhi's dark eyes flashed with anger.

'The magistrate insulted me, 'he said. 'Any such rule is an insult to a free man. I shall write at once to the Durban press to protest against such insulting rules.'

And Gandhi did write. The letter was published and it received unexpected publicity. However, some papers describe Gandhi as an 'unwelcome visitor'.

After a week in Durban, he left for Pretoria to attend to the case for which he had been engaged. With a first class ticket he boarded the train. At the next stop an Englishman got into his compartment.

He looked at a Gandhi with contempt, called the conductor, and said: 'Take this coolie out and put him in the place where he belongs. I will not travel with a coloured man.'

'Yes, sir,' said the conductor

He then turned to Gandhi. 'Hey sami,' he said, 'come along with me to the next compartment.'

'No, I will not,' said Gandhi calmly. 'I was sold a first class ticket and I have every right to be here.'

A constable was called in and he pushed Gandhi out with bag and baggage. The train steamed away leaving him on the platform. He spent the night shivering in the dark waiting-room.

Gandhi took this experience to heart and resolved that, whatever the cost might be, he would fight all such injustices. He sent a note of protest to the General Manager of the railway, but the official justified the conduct of his men.

Further trouble was in store for Gandhi on this journey to Pretoria. He had to travel by stage-coach from Charlestown to Johannesburg. Though he had a first-class ticket, the white conductor would not allow him to sit inside the coach.

'You barrister coolie,' he sneered, 'you can't sit inside with the white passengers. Ticket or no ticket, sit outside on the coach-box. That is my usual place but I will give it to you and take your seat inside.'

Gandhi was enraged at this insult, but with a heavy heart he climbed up to the seat behind the driver. He was in no mood for a fight just then.

When the stage coach stopped to change horses, the conductor came up to Gandhi again.

'Hey sami, you sit below. I want to smoke up here,' he said.

And he spread a dirty sack on the step below for Gandhi to sit on. Gandhi flared up at this.

'I had a first class ticket which entitled me to sit inside,' he said. 'You made me sit here, now you want me to sit at your feet! No, I will not do so.'

'You will have to,' yelled the conductor, and he began to punch Gandhi and tried to drag him down. Gandhi resisted. He held on to the rail, but another blow nearly knocked him down.

Some of the passengers in the coach began to shout.

'Stop that! Leave him alone, conductor,' they cried.

'He is in the right. Let him come here with us.'

The conductor was forced to let him alone.

Gandhi reached Johannesburg the next night, shaken by the incidents on the way. He had address of the Muslim merchant's house there, but as it was rather late at night he took a cab to the Grand National Hotel.

The hotel manager took a good look at him and said 'sorry, there is no room vacant tonight.'

Gandhi knew that he was denied a room only because of his dark skin. Now there was no alternative but to go to the merchant's house, so he went there to spend the night.

The next day he bought a first-class ticket and continued his journey by train to Pretoria.

The only other passenger in the compartment was a well dressed Englishman. As Gandhi entered, the newcomer, and continued reading. A little later the conductor came in. Gandhi quickly showed him his first-class ticket.

'Your ticket does not matter, sami,' growled the conductor. 'Go to go the third class at once.'

Before Gandhi could reply, the Englishman flung down his paper and glared at the conductor.

'What do you mean by harassing this gentleman?' he said vehemently. 'His ticket gives him a right to be here.' Turning to Gandhi he said, 'Make yourself comfortable just where you are,'

Thanking him warmly, Gandhi settled down with a book.

It was late in the evening when the train pulled into Pretoria. There was nobody to meet Gandhi at the station, so he had to spend the night in a hotel.

The next day a friend moved Gandhi to a house where he lived as a lodger. There he began his study of the Abdulla law suit. Even while he was engaged on it, he found time to call a meeting of the Indians in Pretoria.

This he did with the help of Tyeb Haji Khan Muhammad, an influential Indian merchant. Only a handful of Indians attended it. It was the first time Gandhi had addressed a meeting.

'There was too much division among us,' he said. 'Why should we be kept apart by differences in birth, family, caste, and religion? Let us form a league, representing every group, and keep the government informed of our difficulties and our needs.'

The audience listened to him with great interest. It was decided to hold regular meetings of all the Indians in Pretoria.

Meanwhile, Gandhi was entrusted with the task of translating into English all the correspondence exchanged between Dada, Abdulla &Co. and the rival party. After studying all the facts, he was convinced that this clients' claim was just. He knew, however, that if the case was taken to court it would drag on for a long time, so he called together representatives of both parties.

'Why don't you choose a good man, whom you both trust, to arbitrate between you?' he said.

The representatives listened to him with great attention. They were astonished at this new idea he put forward. This young man was not the kind of lawyer they were familiar with, but they appreciated his stand and agreed to his suggestion.

An arbitrator was appointed, and he gave his award in favour of Gandhi's clients, Dada, Abdulla &Co.

Although they had won, Gandhi persuaded his clients to be lenient with their opponent. They agreed not to accept payment in easy installments spread over a long period. Both parties were happy over the settlement.

Gandhi's first success as a lawyer was not a crushing victory over an opponent, but the triumph of good sense and humanity.

In the Orange Free State, Indians had been deprived of all their rights by a law enacted in 1888. They could stay there only if they did menial work. Traders were sent away with nominal compensation.

Under the law passed in 1886, Indians who wanted to live in the Transvaal were forced to pay an annual poll-tax of pound 3 per head. There they were not allowed to possess land except in locations set apart for them. They had no franchise. If they wanted to go out of their houses after 9 p.m., they had to carry a permit with them. They were not allowed to remove their grievances.

He often went out for an evening walk with an English friend, Mr. Coates and he rarely reached home before 10 p.m. He had obtained a letter from the state Atorney allowed him to be out of doors at any time without police interference.

One evening Gandhi was alone, walking at his usual brisk pace, when he was suddenly attacked and knocked down. He was injured. He struggled to his to face a police constable.

'That will teach you to obey the law,' shouted the policeman.  'No Indian has the right to walk past the President's house. Didn't you know that?' The policeman kicked him.

‘Gandhi, are you hurt?’ asked a familiar, friendly voice. It was Mr. Coates. He happened to be passing that way when he saw Gandhi being attacked. Mr. Coates warned the policeman.

‘This man is my friend a distinguished lawyer,’ he said. ‘If he brings a complaint against you, I shall be his witness.’

Then he turned to his friend and said, ‘I am very sorry, Gandhi, that you have been so rudely assaulted.’

‘You need not be sorry,’ said Gandhi. ‘How is the poor man to know? All coloured people are the same to him. I have made it a rule not to go to court in respect of any personal grievance.’

‘Just like you,’ said Coates, who was still very angry at the policeman’s behavior.

Coates turned again to the policeman and said, ‘You should tell an Indian politely what the regulations are not knock him down.’

‘Never mind,’ said Gandhi. ‘I have already forgiven him.’

Now that the Abdulla case had been settled, Gandhi thought there was no need for him to stay on the South Africa. Towards there was no need for him to stay on in South Africa. Towards the end of 1893 he went back to Durban to book his passage in India. Abdulla arranged a farewell party in his honour.

While going through the newspapers that day, Gandhi was surprised to read that a bill was pending before the Natal Legislative Assembly which would deprive Indians of the right to elect members to the Assembly. Here too they would be disfranchised. He brought this to the notice of the people gathered there for the party.

‘What do we understand about such matters?’ Abdulla Seth said. ‘We only understand things that affect our trade.’

‘This bill, if it passes into law, will make our lot extremely difficult,’ Gandhi said gravely. It is the first nail in our coffin. It strikes at the very root of our self-respect.’

The Indians now realized what was at stake; but they were unable to decide what to do. They requested Gandhi to postpone his departure and help them. He agreed to stay on for another month and organize resistance to the new bill.

Late that night the Indians held a meeting in Abdulla Seth’s house under the president's hip of Seth Haji Muhammad, the most influential Indian merchant there. They resolved to oppose the Franchise Bill with all their strength.

Telegrams were went to the speaker of the Assembly and discussion on the bill. The Speaker promptly replied that the discussion would be put for two days.

The Natal Indians then drew up a petition to the Legislative Assembly pleading against the bill. This was followed up by another petition to Lord Ripon, the then Secretary of State for the Colonies. This was signed by more than ten thousand Indians. Copies of the petition were circulated in South Africa, England, and India. There was much sympathy for the Natal Indians' plight, but the campaign had started too late to stop the bill becoming law.

However the campaign did do some good. For the first time, the people of India came to know of ht conditions in Natal. An even more important result was the new spirit that now awakened the Indians in South Africa.

The Natal Indians pressed Gandhi to remain and guide them for a little longer. Gandhi told them that he was prepared to stay on if the Indian community would provide him with sufficient legal work. They gladly agreed to do this. Twenty merchants turned over all their legal business to him.

When Gandhi applied for enrolment as an attorney to argue cases in court, the entire bar, composed of white lawyers, strongly opposed him. The Supreme Court of Natal overruled the objection, however, and he was allowed to practice.

Soon Gandhi became one of the busiest lawyers in Durban; but to him law was a subordinate occupation. His main interest was his public work. He felt that merely sending in petitions and protests would not help the Indians much. A sustained agitation was necessary.

So he proposed the formation of a permanent organization to safeguard the interests of Indians. A meeting was called to discuss this matter. The spacious hall in Dada Abdulla's house was packed to the full. It was there, on that occasion, that the Natal Indian Congress was formed.

In 1894 the Natal Government sought to impose an annual poll-tax on the indentured Indians. These were laborers who had been recruited from India on a five-year contract, but on starvation wages. Under the contract they could not leave their employer. They were treated practically as slaves.

These men lad been taken to South Africa to help the white colonizers in agricultural work. The Indians did more than had been expected of them. They worked hard, purchased land, and started cultivating their own fields. Their enterprise did not end there. They soon built houses and raised themselves far above the status of labourers. The white people did not like this. They wanted the Indian workers to return to India at the end of the contract period. To make things much harder for them, the Government now imposed an annual poll-tax of Pound 25.

The Natal Indian Congress started a strong agitation this. Later, at the intervention of lord Elgin, then viceroy of India, the tax was reduced to pound3. Still Gandhi considered it an atrocious tax, unknown anywhere else in the considered it an atrocious tax, unknown anywhere else in the world. The Natal Indian Congress continued its agitation, but it was twenty years before the poll-tax was finally with drawn.

Gandhi had spent three years in South Africa. He was now a well-known figure. Everyone recognized his frockcoat and turban. And his practice was well established. He realize that was in for a long stay. He knew that the people there wanted him with them, so in 1896 he asked their permission to go home and bring his wife and children to South Africa. Besides, a visit to India would be useful In gaining more support for the Indians in South Africa. He had arranged his work so well that he could look forward to six months' leave.